Wednesday, September 14, 2016

As the Worcester ethnic world turns…

I’m a sucker for a lot of things, and one of the things I’m a big sucker for is seeing my home town of Worcester in the news. And Worcester was in the news – The Boston Globe, anyway – last week with an article on a Ghanaian chief who now make his home in my fair (former) city.

When I was growing up, Worcester was a town of ethnics. White ethnics.

The population was majority Catholic, and most Catholic parishes had a distinct ethnic identity. Some of the parish names were dead giveaways: if you went to Our Lady of Vilna, of course, you were Lithuanian. Mount Carmel? Italian. Notre Dame des Canadiens. French, bien sûr! Our Lady of Czestochowa? Polish.

But why would Holy Name be French? Maybe something got lost in translation.

There were a fair number of Hispanics (Puerto Rican and Cuban) in Worcester when I was growing up. While most of them were Catholic, they didn’t have a church that was “theirs”. I think this was because, Hispanics were a latter-day immigrant group, having found their way to the heart of the Commonwealth after World War II, not in the great Euro-immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th century, when the incoming tribes bunched up with each other and opened a church.

Back in the day, if your church didn’t have an identifiable ethnicity, it was, by default, Irish. So Our Lady of Angels, the church my family belonged to, was Irish, as was St. Peter’s, the parish OLA spun off from when my father was a child. (Wonder if the shutters on the St. Peter’s rectory still have shamrocks on them? I think the neighborhood is largely Hispanic now.) Being Irish meant not only that most of the people in the hood were of Irish descent. It meant ditto for 99.99% of the nuns and priests. (I remember one non-Irish priest at our church when I was a kid. Father Cyril LeBeau, who had two stints at OLA. The first occurred when I was an infant, and Fr. LeBeau, new at the time, refused to baptize me Maureen because you had to have a saint’s name, and there was no damned St. Maureen. My father explained that it was an Irish variant of Mary, and that he’d be hearing plenty of it, so get used to it.)

Some of Worcester’s ethnic churches have closed. (Holy Name.) Some have shifted gears. Our Lady of Vilna serves the Vietnamese community.

There were non-Catholic ethnic groups in Worcester, as well. Greeks, Albanians, and Armenians. “Jews”, who while not associated with any particular country (at least not as far as us ethnic Catholics were concerned) were ethnicky enough. Not a lot of African Americans, for some reason. And, to my German mother’s dismay, NO Germans.

Anyway, Worcester’s ethnic makeup, as with so much of the US, has shifted over time. One way it has shifted is that it’s now something of a hub for Ghanaians.

Jonathan Swift once wrote, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

And given Worcester’s notorious weather, I’d say he or she was a bold Ghanaian who first settled in Worcester.

Harry Danso may not have been the first Ghanian, but he’s probably the most important one.

Danso is known as Nana Awuah Panin III in his native country. He wears a gold crown and colorful kente cloth, resides in a palace, and is chauffeured around town.

But in Worcester, he is just Harry, a middle-aged middle manager at an endoscopy company who paints his own deck and gently discourages his Ghanaian coworkers from calling him “nana.” the word for royal chief.

“I told them not to do that,” Danso, 50, said in an interview at his Worcester home. “Home is home. Work is work.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Ghanaians are, in fact, “the largest single group of immigrants” in Worcester.

some say they are advancing quickly because they speak English, emphasize the importance of higher education, and form closeknit societies that are often led by chiefs, an ancient role that has evolved in the United States.

I don’t remember any white ethnic chiefs, but there were definitely closeknit societies: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Franco-American Society, the It-Am (Italian American) Club, the Polish Naturalization Alliance…

My family was pretty much assimilated. Irish, but not recent Irish. (My father’s grandparents had immigrated in the 1870’s). No one belonged to the AOH. But we were most decidedly Irish.

And this Worcester Irish girl loves the fact that Ghanaians are flocking to Worcester.

I recently had a Ghanaian cab driver (in Boston), who lived in Worcester and raved about it – and all the fellow-Ghanaians who live there. Which I now know includes Harry Danso.

Danso’s been here over 30 years. He’s graduated from college, bought a home, and raised his family. He also raises money to help out back home – improving education, work opportunities, and healthcare. And as a chief, he also plays an important role helping new immigrants assimilate.

Reading about Harry Danso and the Worcester Ghanaian diaspora, I have to ask myself: when it comes to immigrants, what is it that we’re so worried about?

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